It’s actually rather surprising how few books there are about Frederick Douglass, at least when compared with figures like Thomas Jefferson, among whom he deserves to be ranked. In part, that’s because Douglass’s autobiography—published in three versions during his lifetime—is so complete and so well-written, that it’s hard to compete with the man himself. But those interested in the life and ideas of this remarkable man will want to explore not just his own writings, but some of the outstanding scholarship about him:
1. Douglass: Autobiographies (ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) – As with all Library of America volumes, this collection is exceptionally high-quality, and brings together all three versions of his memoirs (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) along with some helpful notes and an excellent year-by-year chronology. The only downside is that My Bondage and My Freedom was published with some excerpts from some of Douglass’s speeches, and unwary readers might wrongly think these are the full texts. This is a problem with “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which really needs to be read in full.
2. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches & Writings (ed. by Yuval Taylor & Philip Foner) – there are two multivolume collections of Douglass’s writings out there: one is still being produced, and is very expensive. The other is Philip Foner’s 5-volume set, done in the 1950s-70s, and also pretty expensive nowadays. Yuval Taylor edited that down to this one-volume collection, which—despite some unfortunate typos—is really the best book to get of Douglass’s non-autobiographical works, which is very important. Too many people stop at the autobiographies and leave out his speeches and essays, which are where the real un-mined gold is. There’s also The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, The Portable Frederick Douglass, and The Essential Frederick Douglass, but these are all significantly less inclusive than this one (and all except the last, shockingly, omit Douglass’s classic “Self-Made Men.”)
3. Young Frederick Douglass by Dickson Preston – Preston was a journalist and amateur historian who took it upon himself to scrounge through old records and reconstruct Douglass’s early life—to see what parts of his slavery memoirs were accurate and what weren’t. The book is slightly dated now—with even some language that might strike a few readers as offensive today—but it remains the most important biographical work ever done on Douglass and a monument to the possibilities of amateur scholarship. It’s really remarkable what he found—and this book is a must-read for Douglass fans.
4. Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought – Second only to Preston in its importance in Douglass scholarship, this book unearths archival material to give us a picture of the domestic life of Douglass: his mother, his wives, his daughters, and the guests who stayed, sometimes for years, in his home. Douglass was a very private man, and we know exceedingly little about his first wife, Anna. This book can’t totally fix that, but it is certainly an important step in completing his biography.
5. The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes – This is an outstanding book that looks at the relationship between Lincoln and Douglass, and compares their sometimes eerily parallel lives. Oakes is a fantastic scholar on the legal history of abolition—his book Freedom National is totally indispensable—and he does an excellent job of examining the way Douglass influenced and was influenced by, the often tumultuous changes in government policy in those four years, 1861-65. Oakes is particularly good in the way he really gets Lincoln’s careful and considered political maneuvering—something that was just not in Douglass’s character, but which he needed, nevertheless.
6. The Lives of Frederick Douglass by Robert Levine – This is the book I wish I had written: it examines Douglass’s memoirs to compare the different versions and examine the significance of Douglass’s reworking of his own life. For a compulsive memoirist like Douglass—such a truly self-made man—this sort of analysis is really critical, and Levine has an exceptionally sensitive ear for nuance. Really an excellent work.
7. Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism by Peter C. Myers – Myers is my favorite analyst of Douglass’s political thought. He really gets Douglass’s classical liberalism and its significance in today’s world of cynicism and so-called realism. Myers examines Douglass’s entire oeuvre and gives us a look at his belief in constitutionalism, private property, economic freedom, personal responsibility, and patriotism, that is really indispensable.
8. The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass by Nicholas Buccola – a necessary companion to Myers. Buccola’s Douglass is a bit more conservative than Myers’s, but they agree on most essentials. Together, these two books put Douglass on the map as a political philosopher in the classical liberal school.
9. Frederick Douglass by Benjamin Quarles – This book was published before Dickson Preston’s research, so it is obsolete in some respects. But it’s still the best biography available. Readable, eloquent, succinct, moving, and thorough.
10. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator by Frederic May Holland – Now almost totally forgotten, Holland’s biography was the first ever published, and was completed with Douglass’s personal involvement. He praised it in his own autobiography, even. Holland had the advantage, therefore, of personal interviews and also the opportunity to discuss his subject’s approach to contemporary political problems, including everything from the labor question (his passage on Douglass’s rejection of socialism is superb) to the annexation of Hawaii.
11. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee by David W. Blight – This is more like a collection of essays on Douglass’s thought and rhetorical style. It’s good—I certainly agree with it in most particulars—but I recommend holding off until after you’ve read a good many of Douglass’s own writings, and then reading this as a summation.
12. Picturing Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer, et al. – This is a collection of Douglass photographs (he was the most photographed American of the 19th century) but it also includes some little-known speeches by Douglass on the subject of photography, a subject which fascinated him. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Now some books I didn’t care much for:
13. Frederick Douglass by William McFeely – McFeely engages in psychohistory on many occasions—in some cases, offensively so, as when he portrays the Edward Covey fight in homoerotic tones. It’s also flat-out wrong in some details, and misleadingly speculative in places, particularly when it comes to Anna. On the plus side, it’s quite thorough, moreso than Quarles, and it includes Preston’s research. So it’s probably a good place for the beginner—but only if he or she goes on to read the correctives, such as Leigh Fought’s book.
14. The Mind of Frederick Douglass by Waldo Martin – Martin’s book was the first, I believe, ever to view Douglass as a political thinker and to put together his political thought for analysis. Unfortunately, Martin is a leftist and condemns Douglass for such things as his belief in free markets and private property rights. Worse yet is his criticism of Douglass for his rejection of “race pride” theory. Not only is that anachronistic, but it’s directly contrary to the views of his subject.
15. Giants: The Parallel Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer – As with Martin’s book, one gets the sense that Stauffer regards Douglass’s classical liberalism with some disdain. This book is more of a parallel biography of Douglass than the Oakes book mentioned above—in that sense it’s more like Douglass and Lincoln by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick. But Stauffer’s treatment of Douglass and Lincoln’s relationship is less nuanced and, I think, rather less serious than is Oakes’s.
16. Frederick Douglass by Booker T. Washington – It’s interesting that Washington published a biography of Douglass, but it was largely ghost-written and it’s been rendered largely obsolete since its publication. There are a few interesting tidbits, but not much more.
17. Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July by James Colaiaco – I feel bad putting this here, because I agreed entirely with this book, and appreciated the author’s depth of reference to classical and modern republican theory and the many thinkers who influenced Douglass’s thought. But the book seems redundant and shallow at times, and its discussion of antislavery political thought could definitely have stood more elaboration. It’s also printed in a really ugly, hard-to-read typeface. Stick with Myers and Buccola and you’ll pretty much have what you need.
18. Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass by Maria Diedrich – This book is effectively refuted by Leigh Fought’s book. I worry it’ll mislead readers who don’t know that. It may be fun reading, but it’s largely a work of imagination. Which reminds me...
19. Douglass’ Women by Jewel Parker Rhodes - I actually haven’t read this one, but it just tickles me that there’s a romance novel out there about Frederick Douglass.